As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Hinrichs, M.S.
Heidi Hinrichs is the Divisional Vice President, Global Clinical and Regulatory Affairs for Cardiac Rhythm Management (CRM) at Abbott. Heidi joined Abbott (then St. Jude) in July 1994 as a Clinical Project Leader and was appointed to her current role in 2019. Heidi serves as the Abbott executive champion for the American Heart Association Los Angeles Heart Walk and is an executive sponsor for the Women Leaders of Abbott and Women in STEM. She received her M.S. in Bioengineering from the University of Utah and a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Iowa.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up with a love for science and math, so I always knew that I wanted to pursue a career in a STEM field. My dad was a civil engineer and he often brought home articles discussing the work on the total artificial heart project at the University of Utah. I was inspired by the story and decided to attend the University of Iowa to study biomedical engineering before earning my Master of Science from the University of Utah, so I could work on the artificial heart that I was so passionate about.
Based on that work, I was able to present at the American Society of Artificial Internal Organs, where I had the opportunity to speak with other scientists and connect with an engineer from a medical device company. That led me to work on medical devices in a commercial setting. My first role in a commercial company (St. Jude Medical now Abbott) was in clinical affairs, where I was able to not just experience the excitement of developing new medical technology, but truly understand how that technology could impact people’s lives.
I am fortunate that I can continue advancing life-changing products and guiding future STEM leaders to success. At Abbott increasing access to STEM education is a big part of our mission, so I’m thrilled to be able to combine so many passions of mine into my career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I transitioned into a new role and department, I participated in a “meet and greet” to introduce myself to the new management team reporting into me and share my leadership style. During the meeting I talked about the need to bring forth multiple solutions and not just the problems. A few months later, I was in a 1 on 1 with one of those managers and he — in his own words — repeated what I had said during that first meeting and presented multiple solutions to the problem. In that moment, I felt I was beginning to establish a way of working together where the team saw that they have an important role in coming up with a solution or direction and that our work is a collaborative effort.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As I was presenting a financial plan to Abbott leaders and stakeholders, many of whom I’d never met before, someone walked into the room who I assumed was a financial controller and addressed them as so. It was the wrong person. Luckily for me, it turned into a good laugh for the group because the individual liked and respected the controller, but it was a reminder to not make assumptions and to always introduce yourself first.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people who have supported me throughout my career, and I am grateful to every one of them. That said, Spencer Kubo, MD, was the Clinical and Medical Affairs Vice President at Acorn Cardiovascular, and he truly spent time teaching me about heart failure and patient care. He also inspired me to be a better motivational leader. I remember interviewing for the position under Dr. Kubo and he stopped by during a break in my interview schedule to “see how I thought things were going.” My first response was “I think they think I’m too young and inexperienced.” He began to relay a story about himself and how he overcame those same feelings in his career. It was an unexpected, supportive comment that was in the back of my mind during the remainder of the interviews. I ended up working for Dr. Kubo for only 3 years but had the most growth during that short period of time.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I run every morning to start my day and clear my mind. This gives me a moment that I don’t always have during the day. At Abbott, helping people live fuller lives is our mission and I think many leaders within the company try to incorporate that into their daily life in different ways. So, for me, it’s running.
If I have an important meeting, I will often try to block my calendar before that meeting to mentally prepare. Sometimes that mental preparedness is literally shutting my door and practicing out loud. Sometimes it’s taking a walk without my phone. Essentially, it is removing all distractions so I can focus on getting myself into the right mindset for the next meeting.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity is fundamental at Abbott — in our people, mindsets and business models. It’s core to fulfilling our purpose and is embedded in our values. It’s also key to our long-term success as a company operating in more than 160 countries. We believe that diversity of thought and inclusion of all people enables us to continue to develop the innovative and life-changing products that so many people rely on to help them live full lives.
We’ve seen firsthand that fostering an inclusive and diverse environment connects communities and ensures we are listening to and responding to the needs of our customers. Ultimately, businesses with diverse leadership have proven to be more successful.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
At Abbott, we create a culture of inclusion through our employee networks, leadership and employee trainings, and the open communication between colleagues that take place every day.
One of the clearest examples of all these approaches is how we have created an environment of inclusivity with our clinical studies. Historically, women and underrepresented groups are not well represented in clinical studies. Our teams realized that was true not only in the patient population participating in clinical trials, but also in the researchers conducting the trials. Because of this, we were providing the same small group of people the opportunity to participate in potentially industry-changing research, excel in their careers and become the leaders in their specialty. By the same token, going to the same researchers over and over again limited the pool of participants — not only to certain geographic regions, but also in terms of overall diversity. After all, many patients want to go to physicians who are like them. Women often seek out female physicians. African American patients often seek out African American doctors.
To address this, Abbott started working with its leadership and employees to help them understand the importance of diversity across its clinical trials and studies. We developed clinical trial recruitment strategies to enroll patients that more closely resembled the affected population to ensure that we are including a significant proportion of women, African Americans, Hispanics and other groups that are often not well represented in studies and trials.
Only by taking these steps and providing the necessary scientific evidence to the medical community can we ensure appropriate healthcare of these populations. For example, we know that cardiovascular disease presents differently in women compared to men because of the increased clinical trial enrollment among women.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
When it comes to women in executive roles, there are some myths that we still need to address. For example, there are still many out there that maintain the idea that women are not assertive enough, too emotional or incapable of leading a function solely with their heads — eventually their hearts become involved as well. That’s a very broad brush to be painting with and it discounts the great leadership from so many women in impactful roles. But in another sense, I think these “myths” are sometimes not necessarily a negative. Women’s ability to lead with both emotion and intelligence can make them strong leaders in the health care industry because we are all working to better the lives of patients — that requires heart.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
At many companies, women are often regarded as less of a leader if they show emotion, and if they don’t show enough emotion, they are labeled as difficult. Not all decision-making scenarios are that cut and dry, especially in healthcare. There needs to be a level of empathy because these decisions impact real lives.
Abbott has gone out of its way to smash those stereotypes and break down barriers for women. Discussions don’t focus on whether someone is emotional. Instead, we emphasize how we can all work together to develop the technology that patients need now, and how can we ensure we are getting it to market quickly and safely. Abbott was definitely on the forefront of the movement to ensure equality for every team member and continues to lead the way.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think there’s an expectation for leaders to have the most expertise in every aspect of the project they’re overseeing, but I’ve learned that there are times when you need to turn to your team and leverage their knowledge. That’s why it’s so important to build teams with people who have diverse backgrounds. Thankfully, this is an approach that Abbott takes. Our culture is built on the understanding that every member of our team is an essential part of our success and every person — no matter their title, position or role in the company — has valuable insights and perspectives to share that can contribute to our overall success. This has helped me become a better leader. I know when I don’t have the answer and I know when I can tap into the collective wisdom that can be found across my talented colleagues.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe anyone can become a successful executive as long as they have the drive and determination. In my perspective, successful executives need to love leading teams. They must know how to motivate them, when and what questions to ask and maintain an environment that encourages collaboration.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I would encourage women leaders to play to their strengths. As women, we tend to have high emotional intelligence and are able to motivate our teams by carefully assessing the situation and purpose. I also recommend women take advantage of their network — reach out to other female leaders. They will want to support you. The more we can leverage our networks, the better.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m passionate about mentoring and networking with young professionals, especially women, to help them develop confidence and be an example for them. To connect with more women, I became involved in Women in STEM, an organization that promotes the inclusion of women in science, technology, engineering and math to encourage leadership.
My role at Abbott has also allowed me to be a part of our employee affinity groups “Women Leaders of Abbott” and “Women in STEM” — employee groups that promote diversity and change for women leaders. Through these groups, we also partner with local schools to raise awareness about the types of science fields, to tour labs, and to ensure young girls are seeing women in science roles — ultimately with the goal of drawing more women into science-based fields.
I’m proud to be a part of an organization that’s trying to encourage more women in STEM fields and find ways to incorporate more women in leadership roles.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Five things I wish I knew before I started are:
- Own your destiny — look out for yourself and determine your career path as you know yourself best.
- Trust is something earned, not given, so be cautious of who you trust.
- Learn how to network. For me, networking is a skill that does not come naturally and if you’re the same, find a mentor.
- You’re going to get rejected and that’s OK — learn from the rejections. If you have a goal and want it, work towards it.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. When you are uncomfortable, that means you’re growing and pushing your limits.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Simple, treat everyone with respect and listen to what they have to say.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” I learned this at an early age, and it has stuck with me. When I was young, I learned to play softball and I remember one time where I hit the ball and as I was running to first base, I saw the ball heading to the person at shortstop. Thinking the player caught the ball, I stopped running. My coach (and former teacher) then looked at me and asked, “Why’d you stop running? The shortstop dropped the ball. You would’ve been safe if you kept going.” It’s been years since this happened, and I learned that you’ll have many rejections along the way, but if you set a goal and want to accomplish it don’t give up.
This is a lesson I have tried to instill in my team at Abbott. Failure is a part of success. It’s only by knowing what doesn’t work that we can find what does work and continually improve upon it. And it is a lesson I have embraced myself. Not all our initiatives are successful right out of the gate. It has taken time, for example, to find the right mix of researchers and patients to reflect our diversity and inclusion goals in our clinical trials. We could have gotten discouraged and quit trying, but we are far better for persevering — and our clinical trials and the data we are generating are far better for it, too.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would have loved to meet with the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I had the opportunity to listen to a live talk of hers and it was incredible to hear her continue to defend not only women’s rights, but also the human rights of those less fortunate. She explained that she always considered “Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” This quote is still something that I track against when decision-making within teams in my current role.